Archive for the ‘advertising’ Category

Feeding the Hand that Bites You

Two stories surfaced this week about companies faced with handing out prizes to businesses whose interests were contrary to their own.

One company graciously gave credit where credit was due. The other declined to do so. Is it ethical to decline to feed the hand that bites you?

The company that declined to recognize another’s achievements was CBS, which forced subsidiary CNET to alter the results of the ‘Best of CES‘ award it gives out after the annual consumer electronics show. CNET’s editors had intended to give top honours to the Dish Network’s “Hopper”, a set-top box that allows viewers to skip commercials. As reported here, CBS has been in a legal battle with the Dish Network over the Hopper, which CBS sees as threatening its stream of ad revenue. The CBS v. Dish lawsuit was cited by CBS as the reason for withdrawing the Hopper from consideration for the CNET award.

And on the other hand: the company that went ahead and gave an award to a competitor was USA Today. The newspaper, you see, had run a contest to reward excellence in print advertising. And the winner, ironically, was Google — the search giant that is cited as one of the key reasons why print advertising is on the decline.

Because both US Today and CNET are media outlets, the most obvious question here has to do with editorial independence. Media companies are in a special situation, ethically. Most of them need to earn a living, but most of them also proclaim a public-service mission, and along with that mission goes a commitment to journalistic independence. Of course, giving out awards is closer to a news outlet’s editorial function, and editorial content has never been as cleanly divorced from commercial concerns as pure news is supposed to be. But if awards handed out by media outlets are to mean anything, they need to remain pretty independent, and meddling by a parent company is bound to cast doubt on editorial independence pretty generally. CBS’s meddling in the CNET’s award has already led one reporter, Greg Sandoval, to resign.

Setting aside the media ethics angle, we might appeal to basic principles of fairness. If you hold a contest, then all eligible contestants deserve a fair shake. If you don’t want to allow your enemies to compete, it’s probably fair if you state that transparently up front. But, other things being equal, everyone deserves an equitable opportunity to compete and win. That’s basic ethics.

Then again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that business is fundamentally adversarial, and the rules that apply in adversarial domains just aren’t going to be the same as those that apply in cozier sorts of interaction. So, in the present case, we might say that the need to observe basic fairness in the treatment of contestants is legitimately overridden by the right not to harm your own interests by advertising a competitor’s product.

But the right to protect your company’s interests needs to be balanced against the kind of signal you send when you take a stand or announce a policy in this regard. What has CBS told us about itself as a company? What kind of outfit has USA Today shown itself to be? This isn’t just a matter of PR; it’s a matter of who CBS and USA Today are as companies. In many respects, you are what you are perceived to be, and what you are perceived to be reflects the actions you take in public.

POM Wonderful and Hearts vs Brains

The makers of POM Wonderful want you to use your heart, not your brain.

At least, that’s the distinct impression we get from the company’s recent battle with the US Federal Trade Commission. Last week, an administrative law judge for the FTC found that at least some of POM’s ads made “false and misleading” claims about the health benefits of the trendy, branded pomegranate juice. And the company is fighting back with a series of ads that, by quoting the judge out of context, makes it look like he actually looked favourably upon their product.

The tagline for these ads: “FTC v. POM: You be the judge”.

So POM wants you to be the judge. On the surface, that sounds like they want you to think for yourself. And who could complain about that? But context matters. So when the company is pushing back against the FTC’s assertion (and the court’s finding) that the health claims made on behalf of its juice just don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, the implied message is that yes, you the consumer should decide, but you shouldn’t use your head in doing so. After all, if you used your head and thought it through rationally, you would want to look at the evidence. And, well, the evidence doesn’t look so good for POM. But the makers of POM, it seems, would rather you look inward instead of looking at the evidence. C’mon, you’ve tasted it. It’s delicious. It must be good for you. And you, dear customer, are smart enough to know that, right? Forget what the science says.

This kind of thing is arguably part of a larger social trend. See this recent essay by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, on the way politicians, in particular over the last decade, have found new ways to play fast-and-loose with the truth. Heath and Potter point out the new popularity of the trick of using stubborn repetition as means of bullying your way past awkward facts. A lie can be convincing, in particular when it feels right, when the claim being made fits with your world view or how you want the world to be. And who wouldn’t like to believe that a tasty serving of fruit juice could prevent heart disease or cancer?

The makers of POM are certainly not unique among advertisers wanting you to use your heart, rather than your brain. But they are unusually bold about it, going on the offensive and thumbing their noses at the people whose job it is to do the fact-checking. So consumers beware: when a company wants you not to take a hard look at the facts, it’s usually time to do just that.

McDonald’s and the Ethics of Olympic Sponsorship

McDonald’s has been taking some heat over its continuing sponsorship of the Olympics. The fast-food chain recently announced that it would remain a top sponsor of the Olympic games through 2020.

The main charge here seems to be some form of hypocrisy. Critics suppose that there’s some sort of contradiction involved in a sporting event being sponsored by a fast-food chain. But there is, of course, no contradiction at all — at least not for those of use who take both our sports and our junk food in moderation. True, a diet that includes frequent trips to McDonald’s (or Burger King or Wendy’s, etc. etc.) seems inconsistent with a lifestyle aimed at maximal athletic output. There’s a real conflict there. But few of us are aiming at elite sporting status, and relatively few of us (thankfully) make Big Macs a staple. Most of us enjoy both sport and junk food in moderation. For us, the occasional serving of greasy fries does absolutely no harm at all to our athletic aspirations. There’s no contradiction in loving, say, both a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and training for a Half Marathon. So there’s no inherent contradiction involved in McD’s sponsoring the Olympics.

And really, if anyone is to blame, it’s not McDonald’s but the International Olympic Committee, and/or whatever subcommittees or functionaries are assigned the task of signing sponsors. After all, it’s their supposed values, not the fast-food chain’s, that this sponsorship deal presumably violates.

But supposed value-conflicts aside: what about the effect of such the McDonalds/Olympics alliance on, for example, kids? Well, note to start that kids don’t watch the olympics much. As for the rest of us, well we need to come to grips with the fact that our economic system features certain warts. And one of those warts is that the freedom to buy-and-sell means the freedom to sell things the over-consumption of which is harmful. And the freedom to sell such things implies the freedom to advertise them. Is affiliation with McDonald’s jeopardizing the positive impact of the Olympics? So be it. Our system of free commerce is a system that brings with it enormous benefits, far more benefits than will ever be derived from one hypertrophied sporting event.

Facebook, It’s Not OK to Suck

Facebook users should keep complaining, complaining bitterly, complaining in every possible forum.

Oddly, for all the controversy over Facebook implementing yet another round of changes to its layout and user experience, that controversy has almost been drowned out by arguments over whether it’s appropriate for users to complain about Facebook. Yes, the burning debate among users is over whether there should be a burning debate among users.

Much of the force of the “stop complaining!” camp is rooted in the claim that, hey, after all, it’s a free service and no one’s forcing you to use it anyway. But contrary to what you might have heard, Facebook isn’t optional, and it isn’t free. Let me explain.

First, let’s talk price. Lots of people have already pointed out that while Facebook doesn’t charge users for an account, that doesn’t mean it’s free. The service is supported by advertising, just like TV shows have been since the days of early soap operas. So you are “paying” to use Facebook — you’re paying with your eyeballs. You’re paying with attention, however fleeting, to those ads along the side of the page. And — the more worrying fact — you’re paying with your privacy, as Facebook uses what seems to be increasingly-ornate ways to gather information about you, your preferences, and your web-surfing habits. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Facebook isn’t an exception.

Think of it this way: Facebook is like a gas-station bathroom. It might be “free”, but that doesn’t mean that quality doesn’t matter. In both cases, the “free” service being offered is there as an inducement. In the gas station’s case, it’s an inducement to stop there for gas (and increasingly for snacks, magazines, etc.). In Facebook’s case, being able to post stuff for “free” for your friends to see is an inducement to look at those ads, and to share your web-surfing habits with that advertising agency. So they have reason to want you to be satisfied, and you have every right to demand excellence in return for your attention.

Second, is Facebook optional? Whether a product is optional or not matters, ethically, because when a product is truly optional, customers can simply exit the relationship, either buying the product from someone else or not buying it at all. Given the option to exit, the dispute between producer and consumer evaporates as the two simply agree to disagree and go their separate ways. (The classic source on this is Albert O. Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.) But Facebook isn’t optional. Ok, I know. Strictly speaking yes it’s optional. But then, so is email, or having a telephone, or having a car. Optional but, for many of us, functionally essential. In this regard, Facebook is a victim of its own success. It has no real competition, and the service is one that many of us cannot simply walk away from. In essence, Facebook has gained a virtual monopoly on what has become part of our social infrastructure. Complaining about Facebook is no sillier than complaining about the state of your local roads or the consistency of your supply of electricity.

So if you don’t like Facebook’s new layout, or if you don’t like Facebook’s approach to privacy, do not hesitate to complain. You’re well within your rights. And if Facebook listens, you might just help make the on-line world a better place.

Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based ethicaloil.org, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

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Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

How Should Companies Memorialize 9/11?

The day has passed, but it’s a question that’s sure to arise again — just under a year from now, and the year after that, and so on.

What can, or should, businesses do with regard to a relatively recent tragic event like 9/11? The cultural significance of an event like 9/11 is hard for anyone to ignore, especially on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day. And companies thrive on raising their profiles, a feat that can most readily be accomplished by riding the coattails of cultural significance. But when the culturally-significant event in question is a tragic one, corporations need to tread carefully.

This general topic can be split into two more specific questions:
1) Can or should companies use references to an event like 9/11 in their advertising?
2) Can or should companies do something to memorialize such events?

The pure advertising question seems easy. Using references to 9/11 in ads is tacky, if not outright unethical. (For some examples, see this nice slideshow by Jim Edwards for Bnet: “10 Advertisers Exploiting the Sept. 11 Attacks to Push Their Brands”.) Profiting from other people’s pain and grief just isn’t a socially-constructive business strategy.

The problem of course is that it’s hard to separate questions 1 and 2. Naturally, any effort on the part of a company to memorialize an event is likely to be seen as an attempt by that company to raise its own profile.

But memorializing an event like 9/11 in some way seems unobjectionable, and perhaps even obligatory. The hard question is what form such memorializing should take. The best ways, perhaps, are the small-scale and personal ones. Giving employees time off work to attend memorial services, for example. The same principle applies to expressions of sentiment: small and local seems best. A simple sign on your front window that says “Never Forget 9/11″ seems to make the point best — better than, say, splashing that same slogan across millions of product packages — and is much less liable to engender suspicions that the expression of sentiment is self-serving.

As an final point, notice that this is precisely the kind of question for which the term “corporate citizenship” provides the right fulcrum. Some people try to use that term to cover all questions of corporate right-and-wrong , but that’s a mistake. Not all obligations or rights are rooted in a weighty concept like citizenship. But this one is. How we respond to national and international tragedies is clearly an issue of citizenship, in the full political sense of that word, the sense that implies a set of rights and responsibilities related to participation in public life. An alternative word like “sustainability,” which some people take to encompass all ethical questions, just doesn’t cut it here. How companies choose to respond to the anniversary of an event like 9/11 says a lot about how they see themselves as corporate citizens, as participating members of a still-grieving community.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name peta.xxx and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

Naomi vs Cadbury

Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.

See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:

Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.

The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….

Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva”, regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.

You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.

Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.

Pink Toenails, Gender Identity and Social Responsibility

This one’s a real tempest in a teapot. Or rather, in a bottle of nail polish.

OK, so here’s the short version. Clothing chain J. Crew’s latest catalog includes a picture of president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son’s toenails pink. Yes, pink — the colour most closely associated, in North American culture, at least, with traditional femininity. Criticism ensued, alleging that J. Crew was acting (intentionally!) to promote a gender-bending agenda. The calibre and cogency of the arguments in favour of that conclusion is about what you’d expect.

The main critic, Fox commentator and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow, provides an object lesson in how to cram as many argumentative fallacies as possible into a single piece of writing, in his oddly-titled editorial, “J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious arguments:

He alleges, without substantiation, that pink-toenail-painting is highly likely to result in gender confusion. In the absence of supporting evidence, we are expected to believe him because he’s got “Dr” in front of his name — essentially a form of illicit appeal to authority. He also engages in straw man argumentation (in which a critic attacks something his opponent never said nor implied), by suggesting that, via this ad, “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” [my emphasis]. He also begs the question by assuming that pink is just for girls (and I’m wearing pink as I write this, by the way). He also has an unfortunate tendency to resort to rhetorical questions: “If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?” (What if my answer is “nothing”? Ablow provides nothing to help me, then.) Ablow also commits the fallacy known as appeal to ignorance when he points out that the effect of “homogenizing males and females … is not known” (i.e., we don’t know that it’s safe, so it is probably unsafe.) He also makes use of an illicit slippery slope argument, suggesting comically that ads such as this are somehow going to result in the end of all procreation, and, hence, of the human race. And Ablow’s argument as a whole amounts to one giant, fallacious, appeal to tradition. I could quite literally teach the entire Fallacies section of my Critical Thinking class just by having students pick apart Ablow’s critique of the J. Crew ad.

(Note that another critic, Erin Brown, over at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, commits fewer fallacies, but only because her article is shorter. But then she apparently doen’t even know what J. Crew is, referring to the men’s and women’s clothier as a “popular preppy woman’s clothing brand.” I happen to own two J. Crew ties. Men’s ties.)

Now, my response to the critics of J. Crew’s ad may seem flippant. So be it. Sometimes ridicule is the best response to something ridiculous. But there is a serious point to be made, here, about the social responsibility of business.

Ablow and Brown share one important view in common with many critics of modern capitalism, namely this: they all believe that businesses have an obligation to pursue certain social agendas. They merely disagree over what that agenda should be. For Ablow and Brown, the social obligation of business is to defend & promote good ol’-fashioned American values, including apparently carefully scripted gender roles. For critics of capitalism, the social obligation of business is to promote social justice, environmental values, gender equality, and so on. In either case, those who urge businesses to adopt social missions — as opposed to merely making and selling stuff that people want to buy, within the bounds of law and ethics — ought to be careful what they wish for. Because if and when businesses do take up social agendas, they may not be the agendas that those advocates prefer.

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Thanks to Laura for showing me this story.

Unethical Innovation

Innovation is a hot topic these days, and has been an important buzzword in business for some time. As Simon Johnson and James Kwak point out in their book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, innovation is almost by definition taken to be a good thing. But, they also point out, it’s far from obvious that innovation is in fact always good. They focus especially on financial innovation, which they say has in at least some instances led to financial instruments that are too complex for purchasers to really understand. Innovation in the area of finance — often lionized as crucial to rendering markets more efficient and hence as a key driver of social wealth — is actually subject to ethical criticism, or at least caution. And the worry is not just that particular innovations in this area have been problematic. The worry is that the pace of innovation has made it hard for regulators, investors, and ratings agencies to keep up.

In what other cases is “innovation” bad, or at least suspect? One other example of an area in which innovation might be worrisome is in advertising. Consider the changes in advertising over the last 100 years. Not only have new media emerged, but so have new methods, new ways of grabbing consumers’ attention. Not all of those innovations have been benign. When innovative methods have been manipulative — subliminal advertising is a key example — they’ve been subject to ethical critique.

Some people would also add the design and manufacture of weaponry to the list. But then, almost all innovations by arms manufacturers have some legitimate use. Landmines and cluster bombs are controversial, largely because of their tendency to do too much “collateral dammage” (i.e., to kill civilians). But they do both have legitimate military uses. So it’s debatable whether the innovation, itself, is bad, instead of just the particular use of the innovation.

Are there other realms in which innovation, generally taken to be a good thing, is actually worrisome? One caveat: the challenge, here, is to point out problematic fields of innovation without merely sounding like a luddite.

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